If only NBA star Kyrie Irving was willing to learn from scholars, rather than Amazon

Fans with shirts reading 'Fight Antisemitism' watch as Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving walks by during a game on Monday. (Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press - image credit)
Fans with shirts reading 'Fight Antisemitism' watch as Brooklyn Nets guard Kyrie Irving walks by during a game on Monday. (Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press - image credit)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

In the last few years, we have seen star athletes amplify their voices and support important causes, usually via social media and their millions of followers.

During the 2020 U.S. election, players from the WNBA's Atlanta Dream mobilized to help defeat their team owner, Senator Kelly Loeffler, and urged her to sell the team, which she eventually did. A year ago, members of the Canadian women's soccer team went public with their threat to not play in their Olympic gold Celebration Tour unless Canada Soccer acknowledged the players' request to create a safer environment for female players.

Racialized players have shared their lived experiences about systemic racism and how it has impacted their lives and careers. Women athletes have also been leaders in disclosing abuse and have been incredibly courageous about what they have and continue to face.

But what happens when a superstar player, who has a significant following, shares information that is harmful or offensive to other communities? Does freedom of speech outweigh the negative impact?

Last week, Brooklyn Nets player Kyrie Irving took to his Twitter and Instagram to promote Hebrews to Negroes, a film Rolling Stone writer Jon Blistein describes as "venomously antisemitic." The post, which Irving has since deleted, linked to the movie with no context provided.

The film is based Ronald Dalton's book of the same name. According to the description (I have not read the book, nor do I intend to) Dalton writes that Blacks are "God's chosen people" and that much of Black people's history was omitted from their education in order to build an America that serves Satan, understood to be white people.

Irving publicly defended his right to post the material in a tête-à-tête with ESPN's Nick Friedell.

In his analysis, Blistein writes that, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Black Hebrew Israelite movement is one that "generally coalesces around the notion that Black people are the real descendants of the ancient Israelites," with more extreme factions claiming that Black people have been "robbed of their identity as being 'God's chosen people.'"

Nick Cannon, a prominent Black media personality, has also amplified this type of ideology, which among other things, insists that Jews control six major U.S. media companies. Cannon later apologized, saying, "I do not condone hate speech nor the spread of hateful rhetoric."

While Irving has since joined with the Nets and donated money to groups working against intolerance, he has yet to apologize, only stating that he "opposes all forms of hatred and oppression and stand strong with communities that are marginalized and impacted every day."

I asked my friend, religious scholar Marjorie Corbman, about the harm being done to Black and Jewish people by such ideologies being shared on a large scale by such a prolific sports star, as well as musician Kanye West.

"The kind of discourses Irving and West are drawing on are absolutely anti-Jewish harmful — full stop," Corbman, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Black religious nationalist discourses, told me over text. "And there's a dangerous cultural trope that portrays Black people as uniquely antisemitic and that's racist."

There are many issues at play here. Policing the expression of Black athletes is not something I want to advocate, particularly when there has been an intentional whitewashing of history. And I do believe that athletes speaking publicly about issues important to them has always been critical and impactful, whether or not it received the attention it deserved from mainstream sports media.

But Irving's attempt to "wake up" the masses is dangerous. In a column for The Nation, Dave Zirin writes that the relationship between Black and Jewish communities in the U.S. is a complicated one and has been fraught with socioeconomic divisions, power dynamics while also creating political connections and alliances.

Zirin explains that when Irving echoes the sentiments of West, who made antisemitic comments and was cut off by corporate partners while being touted by right-wing groups, there is a terrifying link being made in terms of legitimacy of this racism.

Having white supremacists support your words and actions can only be an indication that something is frightfully amiss. And that partnership is a terrible one. That white supremacists are supporting the horrible words of Black men seems unfathomable, but if it serves the interest to further bigotry and hatred, then they go all in.

Irving identifies as an Indigenous Black man as well as a Muslim. Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a Black Muslim man, came out earlier this month against Irving when Irving posted videos of internet gremlin Alex Jones.

Irving has also claimed that mandated vaccines are "one of the biggest violations of human rights in history." Forced vaccines are a close second after slavery and genocide?

Being Black or Jewish not mutually exclusive

Corbman pointed me to the work of a Black Orthodox Jewish scholar named Rabbi Shais Rishon, whose anti-racist approach to faith is embedded in him as he interrogates the complexities of antisemitic Black nationalism, while addressing anti-Black racism in the Jewish community. I asked him to elaborate on the impact of Irving's words and actions.

Rishon points out that the Black and Jewish communities are not mutually exclusive, and what Irving did speaks to questions of Black authenticity and respectability politics.

"Particularly when a common enough perception is that Black and other [non-white] Americans who belong to mainstream Judaism are somehow trying to be 'white,'" Rishon said.

"At this point there's really only one question to be asked when Black figures make these kinds of antisemitic statements: if you're 'for the culture', then kindly inform us what percentage of Black people are you willing to see potentially harmed or killed [by antisemites] as a result of your comments?

"Or is it negligible because we're really 'trying' to be white?"

There are ways in which Irving can learn and unlearn about Black and Jewish history and how they are interwoven, but having a guide such as Corbman or Rishon is probably a better way to go than surfing Amazon.

As a mother and woman who practises faith, watching young children have access to a great athlete offering dangerous information and pointing toward ideologies that actual experts denounce is deeply troubling.